In the face of protests, Iran’s leaders are at an impasse

The mayhem that has swept over Iran in the past few days is once more calling into question the Islamic Republic’s longevity. Recent events are eerily reminiscent of the revolution that displaced the monarchy in 1979: A fragmented, illegitimate state led by cruel yet indecisive men is suddenly confronting an opposition movement that it cannot fully apprehend. It is premature to proclaim the immediate demise of the theocratic regime. Iran may well be entering a prolonged period of chaos and violence. In the aftermath of recent disturbances, however, it is obvious that the lifespan of the Islamic Republic has been considerably shortened.

In retrospect, the regime’s most momentous, and disastrous, decision was its refusal to offer any compromises to an angered nation after the fraudulent presidential election in June. The modest demands of establishment figures such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, including for the release of political prisoners and restoring popular trust (via measures such as respecting the rule of law and opening up the media), was dismissed by an arrogant regime confident of its power.

Disillusioned elites and protesters who had taken to the streets could have been unified, or their resentment assuaged, by a pledge by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the next election to be free and fair, for government to become more inclusive or for limits to be imposed on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s prerogatives. Today, such concessions would be seen as a sign of weakness and would embolden the opposition. The regime no longer has a political path out of its predicament. Ironically, this was the shah’s

dilemma, as he made concessions too late to fortify his power and broaden the social base of his government.

Another irony is that the Islamic Republic today is led by a politician as vacillating as the shah was. Khamenei’s forbidding posture conceals an uncertain personality. Like the shah, Khamenei seems reluctant to order a massive crackdown that would involve summary executions and random shootings of the thousands of protesters. Whether the regime’s security forces have the strategic depth and willingness to engage in such conduct is unknown. Thus far, the regime has opted for a containment strategy: unleashing Basij militias to beat and intimidate the protesters while arresting many of its former loyalists. Yet this not only fails to quell the demonstrations but also erodes the cohesion of the security forces who have the demoralizing task of routinely confronting their compatriots. Meanwhile, as the movement continues to defy authorities, it is likely to become more radicalized. Signs of such militancy are already obvious: The slogans of some demonstrations have changed from demanding the sanctity of the vote to rejecting the entire Islamist enterprise.

Unlike in 1979, the clerical state today has had the luxury of confronting an opposition movement that is incohesive and lacks identifiable leaders. The candidates who challenged Ahmadinejad for the presidency, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, seem more like intrigued observers than masterminds of recent events. This should be cold comfort to the regime, however, because the longer the movement survives, the more likely it is to produce its own leaders. The most remarkable aspect about the events in Iran since June has been the opposition’s ability to sustain itself and to generate vast rallies while deprived of a national organizational network, a well-articulated ideology and charismatic leaders.

Put another way, the Islamic Republic has reached an impasse; it can neither appease the opposition nor forcibly repress it out of existence.

As the United States and its allies wrestle with the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, they would be wise to recognize the changes to the context in which their policy was framed. The Obama administration should take a cue from Ronald Reagan and persistently challenge the legitimacy of the theocratic state and highlight its human rights abuses. The notion that harsh language militates against a nuclear accord is false. At this juncture, the only reason Tehran may be receptive to an agreement on the nuclear issue is to mitigate international pressures while it deals with its internal insurrection. Even if the regime accommodates international concerns about its nuclear program, the United States must stand firm in its support for human rights and economic pressure against the Revolutionary Guards and other organs of repression. And Tehran’s clerical rulers should know that in no uncertain terms. Reagan had no compunction about denouncing the Soviet Union as an «evil empire» while concluding arms control treaties with the Kremlin. The Islamic Republic, like the Soviet Union, is a transient phenomenon. America’s embrace of individual sovereignty will place it on the right side of history as the fortunes of history inevitably change.

Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs.